Walking (& swimming) from Nauta to Requena had been playing on my mind for months. I just could not see a way across, and even at low water the route seemed impossible.
I met Jorge, an out of work maths teacher, when I was in Nauta standing on the bank of the Marañón river looking for a point from which to start the swim across. Within a few minutes of striking up a conversation, he casually mentioned how he would like to walk to Requena with me.
“I need money for my family and my children,” he said.
After a brief discussion, he also agreed to help me get more information about the problem area between the two main rivers. We eventually spoke to a local fisherman who came up with a possible route across, although he also enthusiastically informed us of the dangers.
“There are many big Caiman in the small rivers,” he warned.
With a route plotted, the first task was to cross the river via a 6 km downriver swim, to a point from which we could cross the terrain between the Maranon and Ucayali. I was so preoccupied with the route and the logistics – and so pleased to have a found someone to walk with – that I just assumed my new companion had at least some experience of the jungle. But no. I quickly discovered that this was Jorge’s first time walking or sleeping in the rainforest. You are my guide, he started saying once we had begun, and continued to tell me this throughout the traverse. It was very brave, very foolhardy or very desperate of him to join me, considering all the stories we had been told about the giant caiman, anacondas and venomous snakes we would almost certainly fall prey to en route.
We made it to a community on the banks of the Ucayali after two very long days. There were no anacondas, although we did see a few large caiman dashing out of the jungle and into the lakes as we walked to a point on the east bank where I could swim across the Maranon.
Walking from pueblo to pueblo and sleeping in our hammocks in houses most nights, we were treated very well by the people we met. We were regaled with advice and interesting stories, and in one community we were told that recently a young boy had gone missing in the forest, but was found alive 8 days later, after the whole community went searching for him.
We finally arrived at Requena after picking up a newly cut track we had been told about that led us 9 km to a long winding sand road to the town.
The background to this leg has been the current spate of forest fires in the Amazon, especially in the Bolivian rainforests, where recent reports say over 2 million hectares have been lost already. Evidence on the ground suggests that they are mostly caused by vast and ongoing agricultural/commercial interests demanding ever larger cleanings. The clearings are often so close to each other that any space between them is destroyed anyway, since the surrounding ground/air temperature is raised so high that nearby pristine/uncut forest dries out and becomes just more tinder to feed the adjacent fires.
It is heartbreaking to see pristine rainforest burning, and hard to think of all the amazing flora and fauna we are losing. Unique plant, animal and insect species and giant trees that have survived, some for hundreds of years, providing food and shelter for the rich biodiversity and of course the indigenous and mixed-race communities living in the forest. This desolation of an intricate and vital part of the earth machine we all depend on will eventually affect us all.
On a small scale, at the back of all communities along the Amazon river and the multitude of smaller tributaries, areas are used for growing crops. I have walked across these small, hand-cut areas, burned annually, countless times over the course of this expedition, usually on connected ancient hunting tracks that lead me through the nearby forest and crops to the villages. Traditional communities and indigenous people have been practicing this slash/burn/grow cycle for hundreds perhaps thousands of years, and know the forest. These fires don’t burn beyond the small cleared areas set aside for crop cultivation, and in my opinion this is sustainable living and necessary for the indigenous and mestizos communities to survive in the Amazon.
The clearing and burning is done in the dry season, the driest period being August to October, and many communities also grow ´cash´ crops when the river levels are low, on dry sections of land otherwise covered by seasonal flooding. So they take advantage of the several low water months to clear and plant. The cleared areas are thus used to grow yucca, banana, maze, sugar cane, rice, beans, pineapple, watermelon, and many other different fruit for the community, and any surplus is traded or sold to the nearest town to earn a small income.
In general terms, and certainly on a large scale, the contrast between primary, standing forest and cleared forest or forest regrowth is stark. Walking under the protective canopy of the naturally air-conditioned rainforest, the air is vastly cooler, and the ground is damp and criss-crossed by small, clear-running streams (quebradas) and some naturally permanently wet swamp areas. All this protects the forest from any fire that might be caused by lightning, and makes it virtually impossible for a fire to spread. However, crossing a cut and burned area, where the ground is scorched by the tropical sun and bone dry, the heat is very uncomfortable indeed.The difference in temperature is incredible, and the dried out vegetation is tinder just waiting for a spark.
I’ve come to the conclusion that the Amazon rainforest used to be pretty good at naturally protecting itself: the incredible, elusive Jaguar, packs of wild peccaries, caiman, anaconda, and venomous snakes; the swarms of mosquitos and multitude of stinging & biting insects and parasites; the spiked, poisonous plants; the seasonal flooding, tropical storms; and of course the multitude of indigenous tribes, living in the Amazon for thousands of years. All of these worked together as effective guardians of the forest – at least until about 500 years ago with the arrival of conquistadors and the invention of ships, motorised cutting and earthmoving tools, automated transport, airplanes and guns.
Feeling the fear
“You destroy our lands, poison the planet and sow death, because you are lost. And soon it will be too late to change.
For many years we, the indigenous leaders and peoples of the Amazon, have been warning you, our brothers who have brought so much damage to our forests. What you are doing will change the whole world and will destroy our home – and it will destroy your home too.
We have set aside our divided history to come together. Only a generation ago, many of our tribes were fighting each other, but now we are together, fighting together against our common enemy. And that common enemy is you, the non-indigenous people’s who have invaded our lands and are now burning even those small parts of the forests where we live that you have left for us. President Bolsonaro of Brazil is encouraging the farm owners near our lands to clear the forest – and he is not doing anything to prevent them from invading our territory.
We call on you to stop what you are doing, to stop the destruction, to stop your attack on the spirits of the Earth. When you cut down the trees you assault the spirits of our ancestors. When you dig for minerals you impale the heart of the Earth. And when you pour poisons on the land and into the rivers – chemicals from agriculture and mercury from gold mines – you weaken the spirits, the plants, the animals and the land itself. When you weaken the land like that, it starts to die. If the land dies, if our Earth dies, then none of us will be able to live, and we too will all die.
Why do you do this? You say it is for development – but what kind of development takes away the richness of the forest and replaces it with just one kind of plant or one kind of animal? Where the spirits once gave us everything we needed for a happy life – all of our food, our houses, our medicines – now there is only soya or cattle. Who is this development for? Only a few people live on the farm lands; they cannot support many people and they are barren.
So why do you do this? We can see that it is so that some of you can get a great deal of money. In the Kayapó language we call your money piu caprim, “sad leaves”, because it is a dead and useless thing, and it brings only harm and sadness.
When your money comes into our communities it often causes big problems, driving our people apart. And we can see that it does the same thing in your cities, where what you call rich people live isolated from everyone else, afraid that other people will come to take their piu caprim away from them. Meanwhile other people starve or live in misery because they don’t have enough money to get food for themselves and their children.
But those rich people will die, as we all will die. And when their spirits are separated from their bodies their spirits will be sad and they will suffer, because while they are alive they have made so many other people suffer instead of helping them, instead of making sure that everyone else has enough to eat before they feed themselves, which is our way, the way of the Kayapó, the way of indigenous people.
You have to change the way you live because you are lost, you have lost your way. Where you are going is only the way of destruction and of death. To live you must respect the world, the trees, the plants, the animals, the rivers and even the very earth itself. Because all of these things have spirits, all of these things are spirits, and without the spirits the Earth will die, the rain will stop and the food plants will wither and die too.
We all breathe this one air, we all drink the same water. We live on this one planet. We need to protect the Earth. If we don’t, the big winds will come and destroy the forest’
Then you will feel the fear that we feel.
Header photo. Me and Jorge, the maths teacher from Nauta, walking along the dried out banks of the Rio Ucayali. Apart from the scorching sun, this was the easy part of the last leg.
Thanks to Jorge who bravely accompanied me on the traverse from Nauta to Requena. His modest mantra was “you are my guide”, as it was his first time walking & sleeping in la selva.
Old man fishing for his lunch in the Marañón. Port of Nauta.
One of many large wall paintings in Nauta depicting the arrival of the rubber barons from Europe.
Safely on the other side. Rio Ucayali swim done. That’s the third big river swim in a month.
Clearing by hand and machete a small section of land at the back of a community, used to grow banana and Yucca.
Tracking map Nauta to Requena. Again I can’t seem to get rid of these blue lines! The orange line is a sand/mud road that leads all the way to the border of Brazil and the Rio Yavari. A new road is currently being developed from this road to Requena.
A video related to the article above about the Amazon fires.
Looking forward to seeing this, as well as other documentaries I have missed, on my eventual return to the UK